Ryan Cahill sits down with the BAFTA nominated actor to discuss his acclaimed queer flick, God’s Own Country.
Rising star of the acting world, Josh O’Connor, has just been nominated for a BAFTA alongside his latest flick, God’s Own Country – a love story set in rural Yorkshire and one of the UK’s biest and best of 2017. As he awaits to hear his BAFTA fate, we catch up with Josh to talk Loewe, straight actors in gay roles, and handling gay sex scenes.
2017 saw a huge insurgence in the amount of queer films being released internationally, from Luca Guadagnino’s peach perfect Call My By Your Name to Eliza Hittman’s emotive indie Beach Rats. But it was God’s Own Country, the rurally set story of love and acceptance between a farmer and his Southeastern European apprentice that was the surprise hit of queer cinema. In a directorial debut from Francis Lee, the film exceeded all expectations by filling out cinemas, resulting in a re-release, and becoming an awards season fave, collecting Best Actor and Best Screenplay Debut at the British Independent Film Awards, the World Cinema Directing Award at Sundance, and most recently, a BAFTA Outstanding British Film nomination and an EE Rising Star nod for the films lead, Josh O’Connor.
This is the second time I’ve met Josh. The first was when God’s Own Country was in the week before the film was released; in advance of the press whirlwind, ahead of the the film (and O’Connor) acquiring a huge fan following and prior to the string of accolades and nominations that God’s Own Country would come to amass. When we meet today, on a cold windy Thursday in Soho Theatre, he’s seemingly worlds away from the man I met 6 months ago. He’s no longer shy and reserved, instead greeting me like an old friend with a warm embrace. It’s almost as though his turn as the films tortured protagonist Johnny Saxby has both matured and mellowed him. Truth be told, O’Connor is a genuinely good guy, the kind that you want to go down the pub and have a pint with.
But, instead of a pint, we sit down for a fruity water to talk about his rising star status. Firstly, tell us how you got involved with God’s Own Country. I guess the casting director would have sent the script to my agent. I was filming in Corfu and I read it and I was like “this is amazing, this is beautiful.” I couldn’t meet because I was away, so I did a tape and I sent it in. I’ve now found out from doing Q&A’s with Francis [Lee] that he saw the tape and was like “oh my god, I’ve found someone from Keighley and he’s great for it, the only problem is he looks really troubled and might be a bit problematic” so he was like “I’ll meet him and see what he’s like because I don’t want to work with someone that’s problematic” and then he met me and realised I was from Cheltenham Spa and…posh! How would you describe your working relationship with Francis? He’s genuinely one of my best mates, like a brotherly figure really. We’d go through where he was born, what was the name of his first friend, his first sexual experience, his first sexual experience with a man, and we went through everything in such detail.
Were you quite wrapped up in your character? Totally! By the time we got to set, I kept myself to myself, I had been working on the farm for like two or three weeks before we started shooting and there would be times when John the farmer would come down on a quad bike and they’d call cut on a scene and John would come in with a ewe to be lambed. I’d lamb the ewe and then wash my hands and then call action and do another take — crazy! It must have been really strange when you wrapped filming, having being so invested in the role. A lot of audiences will come and see our film and be like “what happens next?” and what I love about this film, the final shot is the door closing behind Gheorgie and Johnny. I wrote a backstory for Johnny until the first day of the narrative of the film, and then I always saw the point where they
close the door as a goodbye, and it is sad and sometimes you have little pangs of “I miss Gheorgie or I miss Johnny” but that’s cool and the best thing about my job is that I get to live those characters, otherwise they wouldn’t exist. Speaking of Alec who plays Gheorgie, how did you create the on-screen chemistry that the
pair had? I’d been cast and then Francis had seen a few Romanian actors in Bucharest and he flew three over to do a chemistry read with me. All three of them were brilliant. What was so amazing was that where I was going with Jonny, I was finding him to be quite frenetic, quite anxious but wouldn’t ever show it because he was all about showing masculinity and an inarticulacy. I had this inability to be vulnerable, and there was this character or this actor [Alec] who came in and had a calming presence. Me and Francis didn’t discuss it but I just knew that Francis liked him and I liked him but there was this thing afterwards where it was like “that is perfect” because that was exactly what works for Jonny — the counterbalance and the calm presence and understanding. So then me and Francis talked about the fact we didn’t want me and Alec to meet again until we both met onscreen, so then Alec stayed in a hotel and I stayed in my little cottage in the middle of nowhere, so we didn’t talk or meet until we first meet on-screen.
So it was kind of an organic chemistry. Yeah, it felt very organic! Alec worked in a similarly detailed way with Francis separately, and we never shared our backstory and still to this day I have no idea what he wrote, but as soon as you’ve got two characters that have so much depth and you know the narrative, you know where we’re headed, the chemistry kind of happens. When you’ve got two
actors that are engaged and willing to listen and be kind to each other and support each other, you can have so much fun and be wild and take risks and so I never felt, and I don’t think Alec ever felt, unsafe. Yet we had to feel quite vulnerable because there’d be moments where I’d do something a bit mental and we’d have to just run with it and likewise Alec, and that was kind of the rule, we’d do what we thought was right and Francis would guide us that way. How did you handle filming the more explicit
scenes together? Amazing to think about how safe it felt! That was the one scene where me and Alec had to meet before we shot, so we choreographed it, it was so detailed! There was a twenty point plan so it was like “Jonny grabs his crotch, grabs Ghoergie’s shoulder, pushes him down, they roll”. It’s like every single detail was planned. I read an article the other day in The Guardian which said it was the sexiest scene of the year. I think I thought it was fucking sexy! It seems so rough but actually it was so organised and planned and I think that does make it feel safe because you feel like you’re going through the motions together. But also, despite calling it choreography, that doesn’t show on screen at all, it seems really natural. Yes! The points were planned but inbetween anything could have happened, so as long as you’ve got a ground work of a planned journey then it can sort of go off on it’s own little tangent. Why do you think it is that it’s resonated with so many people, both gay and straight? I think there is something to do with the fact that it’s a love story not set in a metropolitan environment. [Andrew Haigh’s] Weekend is a beautiful film, but it’s a metropolitan love story and we see that all the time. I also think it’s so real, it’s authentic, it’s not glitzy or pretty, again not to bring in other films, there are certain films this year that are beautiful love stories, quite glamorous and very beautiful looking and sometimes you want that, but I think sometimes you just want to see fucking real life. You want to see you represented on-screen. I feel like that’s why a lot of people have got behind it. Speaking of representation on-screen, there is kind of an on-going debate about straight
actors playing gay roles, I wondered what your
thoughts were on that? I think it’s a really difficult one because ultimately — in some ways this is the best way to describe it — if you go into a casting room, it would be impossible for Francis for instance to say “tell me your sexuality”. Ultimately, we should continue to fight for equality across all roles. I think from Francis’ point of view, it was a case of “let’s cast this role in the best way that we possibly can or who I think is best for that role”. Unfortunately across the board and in every aspect of casting there are issues, but I think my stance on it as an actor is that my job is to represent a character as best I can, and if I ever feel like I can’t, I would say. Do you think that the UK film industry has enough films which shines the lines on the LGBTQ community? That’s interesting. I think
there’s always more stories and I guess projects like God’s Own Country can only be good, because it’s a low budget film, there’s no stars in it and it’s broken records in terms of box office so that can only be a good thing! I think there should be more. As a cinema fan, I would like to see more. This year has been incredible; Beach Rats, Call Me By Your Name, BPM, God’s Own Country, all these great films and all being unbelievably successful so that’s really cool. But yeah, there can always be more! You’re nominated for the BAFTA for EE Rising Star. How does it feel to be nominated? I vote every year for the Rising Star and think it’s the most amazing thing. The idea of being up there is just pretty mental! I know it’s a group of incredible actors, and some of whom I know. It’s a massive honour.
What would it mean to you to win? I’d just be overwhelmed. You’d get a rubbish speech out of me. It would mean a lot, but it’s weird, it doesn’t seem like a real thing. Especially as a young actor, you never really every imagine that you’ll be there, so it’s a weird thing to grasp! Aside from acting, you were recently named as the new face of Menswear for Loewe. How
did that come about? That came about because Jonathan Anderson saw the film and was like “I want that boy” so I think it was that simple! I am a massive fan of Jonathan and JW Anderson but Loewe specifically! When I first met him we were in Madrid and he took me the Loewe store in Madrid! It’s not just about the fashion, it’s about the artistic merit of it. Charlotte Rampling was the last ambassador and I’m kind of obsessed with her, so it was kind of a combination of those things but Jonathan is just an incredible man!
You’ve been so busy recently, what’s next? I’m doing something with the BBC. I’m doing an adaption of Les Miserables, but it’s not a musical. It’s an adaption of the novel with Dominic West, Olivia Colman, so it’s an amazing cast!